In House of Cards, there’s no sign of God anywhere. Francis’ crisis is a far cry from the faith struggle we have become familiar with, and a sign of a changing culture.
Note: This article contains no major spoilers for House of Cards, but contains some spoilers for The West Wing and Shakespeare’s plays.
Not to spoil the bard’s tragedies for you, but most of Shakespeare’s leads die in the end, tragic examples of characters who let power and ambition rule their lives. While I watched the final episode of House of Cards season one, an original series currently streaming on Netflix, I wondered to myself, “Will Francis Underwood die at the end, too?”
House of Cards is classic Shakespearean tragedy set in a postmodern, Nietzschean age. Like Macbeth or Richard III, Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a ruthless politician greedy for personal power at any cost. In the first episode, majority-whip Underwood discovers that he has been passed up for Secretary of State, a plum he had been promised by the president in exchange for his support during the general election. Angry, Francis and his imperial wife Claire (played masterfully by Robin Wright) scheme to get revenge against the president for his betrayal, and to ascend to the heights of political power. Over the course of thirteen episodes, we watch their plan unfold as they gather pawns for their game of thrones – pawns like Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a congressman beset by personal demons of addiction, and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young journalist as desperately ambitious as the Underwoods themselves.
Idealism Versus Cynicism
House of Cards isn’t the first tv show to tackle Washington. NBC’s The West Wing spent seven seasons following White House staffers through the daily drama of running the country. Airing from 1999-2006, The West Wing mostly centered around the administration of President Bartlett (Martin Sheen), a flawed but heroic Catholic Democratic President, and his devoted senior staff.
If Josiah Bartlett was the President the nation wished it had, Francis Underwood is the nightmare we’re afraid really exists. Underwood, with his conspiracy, betrayal, and amorality in the quest for power, is the antihero answer to President Bartlett’s selfless service. The Underwoods, in fact, are an embodiment of the philosophy behind Nietzsche’s classic Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche argues that God is dead, and because of that, traditional morality (of the sort that motivated President Bartlett’s administration) has no meaning or relevance. Without a God to provide meaning to life, Nietzsche claims that every human should strive to be an Übermensch (“overman” or “superman”), and must create his own values. In the moral vacuum left by God’s absence, there are no grounds upon which to criticize or justify any action. The Übermensch, like Francis Underwood, is motivated by what Nietzsche calls the “will to power” – achievement, ambition, striving to reach the highest possible position in life. Nietzsche claims that the “will to power” is essentially a creative, life-giving force, calling it the “unexhausted procreative will of life.”
In the story told by House of Cards, the driving forces of power and ambition are consistently in opposition to a pro-life ethic. Claire’s non-profit the Clean Water Initiative is regularly stymied in its goal of bringing clean water to the planet when Claire uses the organization to assist in Frank’s power plays. Her single minded pursuit of political power has led her to seek three abortions and to face the unlikelihood of ever bearing a child. Congressman Russo’s honest environmental goals are given up in order for him and Underwood to gain more control in Congress. In the search for power, Russo begins to find freedom from debilitating addiction, but his rebirth is ultimately sacrificed at the altar of Frank’s need for power.
A Tale of Two Faith Crises
If God is dead, as Nietzsche and the Underwoods seem to believe, and morality is therefore up for grabs, we can’t fault the Underwoods for their cold-blooded ambition. But in the universe of House of Cards, is God really dead?
Churches figure prominently in two standout scenes. In the third episode, Francis travels to his hometown to smooth over a potential scandal. In an attempt to convince bereaved parents not to sue him for their daughter’s death, he attends their church and is given the opportunity to share a few words from the pulpit. Underwood speaks the language of Christianity fluently, invoking Scripture and faith in God, calling upon the congregation to accept God’s will. His eloquence convinces the family and their community to drop the suit. For Underwood, it would appear, religion is just another weapon to wield in the battle for power.
For President Bartlett in The West Wing, though, God is real and alive. We witness the depths of the President’s personal devotion in episodes like “Shibboleth,” when he welcomes Chinese refugees seeking religious asylum. In another famous scene in the episode “Two Cathedrals,” the President faces a crisis of belief. After his secretary is killed by a drunk driver, Bartlett enters a church alone and rails against God, praying angrily. He questions God’s goodness, but never doubts His existence.
In the final episode of House of Cards, in a scene so similar that it seems like an intentional reference to “Two Cathedrals,” Francis Underwood also prays alone in a cathedral. He is clearly desperate – not because he feels guilty for the crimes he has committed, but because he’s afraid his schemes for power will fail. At the altar, he speaks to God:
“Every time I’ve spoken to you, you’ve never spoken back. Although, given our mutual disdain, I can’t blame you for the silent treatment. Perhaps I’m speaking to the wrong audience… Can you hear me? Are you even capable of language or do you only understand depravity?”
The sound of a slamming door echoes through the cathedral, and Francis looks shaken, as if he’s seen a ghost. He is quickly composed, though, and challenges the ghost to appear. After a moment, Francis kneels, looks into the camera, directly at the viewer, and remarks soberly, “There is no solace above or below, only us: small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.”
He stands, and lights a candle. Then he starts to go, but pauses, as if struck by a thought, and blows each candle out. His impulse towards prayer in a moment of weakness is extinguished by his confident assurance: there is no God. There is only Francis Underwood.
Will the House of Cards Fall?
Even Francis Underwood, the modern epitome of the Übermensch, begins to doubt the choices he’s made and the philosophy that guides those choices, though he doesn’t quite surrender to those doubts. He doesn’t tremble at a ghost the way that Macbeth does when Banquo’s ghost appears.
Perhaps the “crisis of belief” that Frances faces when his power is threatened – the search for meaning when the idol of self fails him – is a more common crisis in our post-christian society than President Bartlett’s religious struggle. President Bartlett, concerned primarily with the nature of God asks, “God, are you really good?” Francis Underwood, concerned with more immediate and pragmatic things asks, “Am I really going to succeed?”
The post-Christian crisis of belief – a crisis of belief in self – is a crisis we should embrace. It can be an opportunity for God to speak, prompting the doubter to consider the futility of the “will to power,” to consider the need for a Savior.
President Bartlett was a heroic protagonist, but Congressman Underwood plays the villain. Shakespeare’s villains faced their just desserts, but we don’t know yet if Underwood will. Does our culture believe, with Nietzsche, that morality is for us to define, or do we believe that a standard-bearer exists? Does our culture still believe that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death”? Or do we actually want to see the villain succeed, hoping his success can justify our own selfish endeavors?
Conscience backs up what the Bard knew to be true – that greed, ambition, and the unchecked quest for personal power always end in destruction of life. Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless the Lord builds the house, it’s just a house of cards, indeed.